Harvard Professor Ajantha Subramanian talks on IITs and social life of caste

Ajantha Subramanian

Fathima Latheef, a student of Humanities and Development Studies at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, from Kollam town in Kerala, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her hostel room on November 9. The notes on her mobile phone blamed some faculty members.

The parents of 19-year-old Fathima Latheef, have alleged that their daughter took the extreme step after being mentally harassed by her teachers. The parents have also claimed that they had subject their daughter to religious persecution. 

She had even said to her parents that it had become an issue that her name is Fathima, that she is a Muslim. Her father says in regarding the faculty’s attitude. “ They were disgusted to see a Muslim name topping every test”.

“Casteist and Islamophobic behavior of faculty and their discriminatory attitude have led to many institutional murder in the higher learning institutes in the country including IIT Madras, there needs to be constant public pressure to make the casteist and Brahmanical academia change its course,” many students’ groups and rights activists appealed in the context of Fathima’s death.

Fathima Latheef

Through in-depth study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)—widely seen as symbols of national promise— Harvard University professor and anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian, reveals the continued workings of upper-caste privilege within the most modern institutions.

Ajantha Subramanian is an anthropologist who specializes in social stratification, political economy, and citizenship. She is a Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Harvard University and the author of Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India and the The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.

In The Caste of Merit, Ajantha Subramanian challenges the comfortable assumption by illuminating the controversial relationships among technical education, caste formation, and economic stratification in modern India, Harvard University Press observes.

“I argue that the IIT graduate’s status depends on the transformation of privilege into merit, or the conversion of caste capital into modern capital. Analysis of this process calls for a relational approach to merit. My ethnographic research on the southeastern state of Tamilnadu, and on IIT Madras located in the state capital of Chennai, illuminates claims to merit, not simply as the transformation of capital but also as responses to subaltern assertion,” Ajantha wrote in the abstract to Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste, published online by Cambridge University Press, 20 March 2015.

Listen Ajantha Subramanian’s speech titled ‘The Meritocrats: The Indian Institute of Technology and the social life of caste’ which she delivered at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi in 2014.


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